How to Make Sustainability Reporting Matter…to Accountants

How do you make something matter to an accountant?* It’s actually pretty simple: you just have to show why it matters to that accountant’s business.

chartered-accountantWhen it comes to sustainability reporting, most corporate finance and accounting professionals now recognize that it can contribute to better strategic thinking and can improve business and investment decision making. However, there are still some hold outs who don’t see the value of sustainability reporting – here’s how to get them on board.

First, you may have noticed that this article uses the term “reporting” instead of “report”. That’s because the era of a company simply publishing an isolated public commitment to sustainability is over. The expectations of stakeholder groups have changed: they now want a comprehensive understanding of how a commitment to sustainability affects an organization’s goals, strategy and performance.

Recognizing this has made many company leaders realize that they not only have to identify what matters most (what is “material”) to their business, they need to identify who matters most. Additionally, they have to understand the different priorities of their most important stakeholder audiences.

Consequently, “reporting” can involve a combination of options for many different audiences: comprehensive and summary reports, websites and microsites, and varied and complementary social media. Applying a combination of these options presents companies with opportunities to engage – and potentially nab good ideas from – employees, clients, investors and other valued stakeholders.

So, how can you make sustainability reporting matter to an accountant or finance executive? Consider three accountant-friendly words: process, measurement and management. Sustainability reporting can significantly improve the process that a company uses to identify its priorities (material issues); this will include improving the checkpoints that are put in place to measure, evaluate and report a company’s progress in relation to its priorities; and this, in turn, will provide management with better information, which it can use to improve the company’s top- and bottom-line performance.

To help get companies moving in the right reporting direction, my colleagues at The Works Design Communications Ltd. and I recently collaborated with CPA Canada to develop the “Starter’s Guide to Sustainability Reporting”. It provides a current update on sustainability reporting guidelines (e.g., G4), outlines effective process steps, and shares insights from our 2013 research on reporting trends and best practices. As this guide offers a flexible prescription for successful reporting, it can be extremely helpful for practitioners and consultants who support both small and large companies. It is available [where, from who]. Please check it out, and let us know what you think.

*Apologies to those who might have thought this was the set-up to an accounting joke. If you were disappointed, this is for you: Who was the accountant’s favourite actor? Heath Ledger. (There are many more like this on the Internet, if you’re curious.)
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Wesley Gee, M. Sc., AIEMA, is Director, Sustainability at The Works Design Communications Ltd., where he works with a wide variety of clients on improving both sustainability communications and sustainability performance. You can contact Wesley at gee@worksdesign.com